More comments on liberalism, Christianity, Ellul and what not else

While composing my post on Ellul and rummaging around other things I had written, I ran into some comments I had made in in a discussion thread regarding a short essay of mine on liberalism and Christianity. The comments were extensive enough that I thought I’d edit them a bit and post them here, for preservation if nothing else.

[ … ] It seems to me that some of the objections about talking about liberalism as One Big Thing floating around somewhere were dealt with in the first couple of paragraphs of the piece.

Anyway, the piece is about liberalism as fundamental principles that are pretty much universally accepted as authoritative in a liberal society like the United States, and not liberalism as a particular faction. Those principles include the view that freedom and equality are the highest political standards, and in case of conflict ought to determine what the outcome is.

The general thought is that those principles have implications that don’t depend on what people think about them, and if the principles are accepted and applied repeatedly in deciding particular issues, then the overall long-term effect will be to realize those implications. The point was to show current American liberalism as the outcome of the progressive realization in history of simple and coherent principles firmly rooted in modern understandings of reality. Liberalism has to be taken seriously, it’s not just a bunch of odd people saying odd things, and it matters what its principles really imply.

So here’s a bunch of particular comments:

  1. I used present-day American liberalism for my examples because tNP is an American publication and I don’t think contemporary American liberalism is all that different from the ruling outlook elsewhere in the West.
  2. I don’t think liberalism or anything like it is responsible for all things evil, de-humanizing and immoral. The belief that politics and morality are a sort of construction to realize liberty and equality is very destructive when it becomes as powerful as it has today but it’s obviously not the only destructive thing there is.
  3. I didn’t distinguish variations within liberalism because I believe it’s coherent enough so it’s usually possible to say what it demands in this situation or that. That make it possible to talk about liberalism in general if that’s what one wants to talk about. And that’s what I wanted to talk about.
  4. If that’s too simpleminded, because there’s no “liberalism” but only many “liberalisms,” then why isn’t it simpleminded to use the word “progressive” as if it meant something definite? Is there only one “progressivism”?
  5. In actual fact, I don’t see anything very coherent about progressivism (or communitarianism, the Third Way, or whatnot else) when it opposes itself to liberalism. Wishing for a lot of things that seem nice but don’t really hang together doesn’t give you a movement that’s going to go anywhere.
  6. When I mentioned the Passion I was also mentioned “educated people.” The movie was not a huge success in the prestige press—in public discussions carried on among educated Americans as a class.
  7. It’s true that there are lots of voters who are Christians of one sort or another. There are also politicians who pitch to them and make various gestures that mostly amount to foot-dragging or face-making in response to current liberal demands. Many of the politicians believe in what they’re doing to some extent. None of it gets much of anywhere, and the tendency of events seems to me all in the opposite direction. So I don’t think all that matters all that much.
  8. The point of the article is that if freedom and equality are treated as ultimate political standards then the political order will eventually become profoundly anti-Christian, because Christianity does not view freedom and equality as ultimate standards and political understandings can’t be detached from general understandings of man and the world. If all that sounds like rhetoric about limp-wristed latte-drinkers picking on poor helpless Christians I’m not sure what to say.
  9. Saying X is a problem and why it’s a problem doesn’t by itself solve anything. Still, what’s wrong with trying to define a problem? Can’t it be useful and maybe even necessary as a background to further thought?

[ … ]

“Where do we go from here, where do we go,
Out of the broken bottles? Pious sot!
You have no guide or clue for you know only
Puce snakes and violet mastodons, where the brain beats,
And a selzer is no anwer, a vomit no relief,
And the parched tongue no feel of water …”

T. S. Eliot

OK, maybe it’s not really T. S. Eliot, but it does raise the question what to do now, which other people have asked as well.

My tNP piece was based on the thought that ultimate understandings and standards matter a lot. That’s true even though existing habits and circumstances are probably more important day-to-day, and even though most people are never all that clear on what their ultimate standards really are. So my plan in concept would be to change ultimate standards and then let the specifics sort themselves out through normal political life:

  1. Get rid of freedom and equality as supreme standards. That doesn’t mean introducing slavery as the supreme standard or even getting rid of freedom and equality as things that are often good in this setting or that. It means recognizing that the good life and good society involve a lot more than freedom and equality, and if government or anybody else is going to act rationally it should refer to as full an understanding as possible of the goods and dangers involved.
  2. Let people try to live by what they think is right and good and try to persuade other people to join them in establishing a setting that fosters or at least makes possible that kind of life. To the extent there’s agreement then that will be reflected in how people live together, including laws. To the extent there isn’t agreement then whatever gets worked out gets worked out, with the aid of whatever partial agreement or practical wisdom or influence or force the parties can bring to the situation. There won’t be any super-principle like liberal neutrality though that supposedly determines in advance how all conflicts get resolved without taking sides on anything substantive. No such principle is possible.
  3. Obviously there’s no guarantee all disputes will be solved peacefully. That’s life. There’s no way to create such a guarantee without imposing a tyranny that just squashes objections, and once that’s done there’s no guarantee the tyranny will last or will do more good than harm.
  4. The likelihood of social breakdown could be reduced by getting rid of the view that social institutions aren’t really worth supporting unless they seem designed to implement clearly-defined goals. Instead, we should all agree that it’s probably wise to support inherited institutions even if it’s debatable what they do, and certainly legitimate to support social arrangements to which you are attached and which you view as part of what you are. Then instead of a super-principle of neutrality that gets rid of fundamental disputes you’d have a super-principle of tradition to make them less frequent and to moderate their demands when they come up.
  5. Net effect: people would live by what they’re used to and attached to and then when an issue came up they’d try to resolve it by reference to the same things, and by reference to what they think would promote the best outcome and way of life. I don’t see why that is more likely to lead to civil war or whatever than the current situation in which you have the same things going on but also the presumption that things should be rationalized through and through and some super-level of authority that tells people what they must and mustn’t do so law and social practices will be neutral.
  6. So far I’ve been talking in a value-free social process sort of way about how politics works once you get rid of the illusion that you can abolish it by establishing liberalism, which supposedly determines disputes in a neutral way and thereby makes social life nonpolitical. I suggested in effect that once that had been done a more adequate understanding of the social good could develop through normal political life and what people find they can agree on. It’s also necessary of course for a complete statement to talk about how I think the process should come out. Since I’m Catholic on the whole I’d talk to the Pope about it, although naturally I have my own ideas that would affect how I’d interpret and apply things. I take the Church’s view quite seriously that most of what they say about social morality and morality in general is just a matter of natural law so I’d have no hesitancy bringing it into politics even if most people aren’t Catholic.

The basic point is that “what will replace liberalism” isn’t some completely determined system set up by plan but a different fundamental principle that works out and specifies its implications over time just as liberalism did. The new fundamental principle would initially be simple acceptance that there are more goods that are real and politically relevant than the ones recognized by liberalism. That general acceptance would then be filled out by whatever social agreements exist and grow up. I would push for something Catholic as the social agreement that should grow up. That seems reasonable to me because Catholicism seems reasonable and has staying power.

[ … ]

In politics immediate radical change is hard to bring about and never works as intended. Also, you have to start where you are. So what I proposed is intended to be the smallest change possible that opens a door out of liberalism and makes better things possible.

The defining quality of LIBERalism is freedom as the supreme authoritative good. So the proposal is to say “OK, we have a liberal political system in which the people choose how things will be, so let’s let them choose something other than the untrammelled ability to choose as the standard toward which things should be oriented.” The thought is that once the people choose something else you no longer have liberalism. You could still have legislatures, elections, a generally free press and whatnot but it wouldn’t be liberalism because the function and justification and limitations of such things would no longer be measured by the standard of freedom, equality, security, prosperity etc. but by something else.

Naturally I have views on what the people should choose, they should do what God wants them to do for example, but the whole argument doesn’t have to be packed into every stage of the process.

The approach has the advantage of common sense, which is important since liberalism corresponds to modern understandings of rationality that have a hard time making sense of anything other than “what I want” as a rational standard of action. It would seem bizarre and a sort of tyranny of liberalism if the people weren’t allowed to choose some goal other than maximum choice. So if we can contest liberalism effectively on its own ground it’s all to the good.

Someone might say that a disadvantage is that the approach still makes the will of the people the key but to some extent that’s always the case. In general you can’t be saved unless you’re willing to be saved, so at some point everything depends on your accepting something other than your own will as the standard. And all I’m saying is that the people should be allowed to do that as well. Just as a man should be allowed to accept baptism or monastic vows and with them certain obligations the people should be allowed to give themselves a non-liberal constitution. That of course could come about in stages.

[ … ]

There’s a lot to say and do on a topic as vast as the direction of the social order and how and why to change it. It’s true I didn’t describe what a specific movement with guiding ideals, platform, slogans, immediate goals etc. would look like. It’s also true that without specific inspirations and proposals nobody’s actually going to do anything. Still, if I had been so specific there would be the objection that I’m presenting too much of a blueprint, which isn’t realistic because no movement achieves all its goals and its achievements usually don’t work out as planned anyway.

As an immediate thing (since I’m Catholic) I think Catholics should push their do or die issues, find ways to live in a more truly Catholic way themselves, and see what political and social action is needed to facilitate that. Changes in how education works and establishment of pop trash-free zones come to mind. Also, cutting back on various pro-tolerance and anti-discrimination initiatives. At the level of grand principle, in the law and the consensus of experts and so on, which is where a lot of the blockage lies, we should all pursue the critique of liberalism.

The point is to make it possible for incremental changes to have a cumulative effect. It does seem to me that the key thing needed so small changes can accumulate is a change in the guiding standards that everyone treats as authoritative, and the first thing needed for that to happen is to establish that the liberal guiding standards are much too narrow and for that reason destructive.

[ … ]

I looked briefly at Ellul. When he opposes liberalism and the technological society he means “liberalism” in the European sense, as something a bit like what in America today call “libertarianism.” Liberalism in that sense seems to me a phase in a broader long-term movement toward making maximum equal satisfaction of individual preferences the fundamental ethical principle. In other words, I think the American meaning of “liberalism” is more illuminating.

One basic problem I see with his view, at least as it appears from the few pages of The Technological Society I’ve looked at, is that technique involves rational application of means to ends, which means that individual ends must be given a certain amount of freedom to develop, display and effectuate themselves. So it seems that liberalism in his sense, letting people do what they choose, has to be a permanent component of an overall system of technical rationality. He seems to underestimate the extent to which an overall technological approach can use self-regulatory mechanisms like the market. It also seems that he underestimated the flexibility and self-correcting nature of markets and overestimated the usefulness of overall economic planning as a means of advancing efficiency. He was writing in France 50 years ago, and his views on such points might well be different following the collapse of socialism.

I do agree though that there’s a permanent tension between the libertarian and the social democratic aspects of what I and other Americans call liberalism. The tendency is to treat the libertarian aspects as something one tolerates for the sake of something else, like efficiency. Rawls makes that tendency explicit with his difference principle.

[ … ]

A commenter said:

quote: “Perhaps it would be fair to say that the liberal tradition even today has not yet generated a credible account of moral life. Perhaps it would be similarily fair to say that the conservative tradition has not yet generated a credible account of political life.”

I think that’s my problem here: I keep looking for the basis for a workable political system in what y’all are saying, and I can’t find it. Plenty of good stuff about moral practices, social organization, etc. But my main point of contention is that it doesn’t add up to a workable political system, because a political system is a very simplified version of any intellectual political theory.

That’s like saying a literature is a very simplified version of a critical theory. Part of being a liberal or for that matter a modern man seems to be the belief that everything can and should be made explicit. On that view reality becomes a crude reflection not of Platonic forms but of theories that we have constructed ourselves. That’s not the way things work though. Practice falls short of theory in some ways but there are a lot more ways in which theory fails to capture reality.

To come slightly closer to the topic of discussion: Political life is not simply a pale and imperfect reflection of political theory. Some sort of political system is always in effect, and every political system is a complex of institutions, habits, attitudes, beliefs etc. that are simply there, they’ve been inherited from the past, together with current interests and tendencies and some sort of overriding principles that people have come to agree ought to govern the resolution of basic disputes.

The “we can’t do without liberalism” theory that some have put forward is the theory that the overriding principle has to be equal freedom in the liberal sense. If that’s not the overriding principle, if some other principle like “let’s maintain and develop what we’ve mostly found to be the good life” gets adopted then the political order will become unstable and we’ll get civil war.

Why is that? Is “equal freedom” supposed to be obviously correct as a statement of what politics should be about? Are all its implications, as we see them working themselves out around us, universally acceptable and capable of arousing love and loyalty?

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